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Young, Queer, and Pregnant

Groundbreaking YA novel centers on pregnant teenager.

Girls Like Me cover, used with permission
Source: Girls Like Me cover, used with permission

The first young adult novel to explore the life of a queer pregnant teenager, Nina Packebush’s Girls Like Me (Bedazzled Ink Publishing, 2017) got a Valentine’s Day shout-out from the In the Margins Book Awards as an official recommended reading choice for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody, or all three.

While LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to experience teenage pregnancy than their straight-identified peers, according to a recent study reported in the American Journal of Public Health, YA literature has ignored this particular segment of the population—until now.

I talked to author Nina Packebush, herself a grown-up queer teen mama, about the book’s impact.

Ariel Gore: Girls Like Me opens with 16-year-old Banjo Logan waking up in a juvenile mental ward. Why did you choose to start the story there?

Nina Packebush: I thought it might be a powerful way to draw the reader into the story quickly. But I also wanted to set the stage to begin to explore all of the different circumstances that led to my protagonist, Banjo, finding herself in this situation; things like the suicide of her partner, family dynamics, and the denial she feels about her pregnancy.

I wanted to start out exploring how the mental health system, and society in general, can often miss the mark when it comes to the link between trauma and a mental health crisis.

Ariel Gore: I saw on social media that your book has already gotten Target to change the way they list queer titles on their website.

Nina Packebush: My book was listed on the Target website and one night my girlfriend noticed that the word queer had been censored in the synopsis. They had replaced the word with q***r. Some friends of mine started to scour the Target website and discovered that any book that had the word queer in the synopsis was censored. I was really upset by this and tweeted at Target "Queer is not a dirty word. Stop censoring the word queer." I also posted on my Facebook and on several Facebook pages that I belonged to. People took up the cause and began writing to Target and contacting them via social media. Within a week Target responded to me directly and said they would no longer be censoring the word. Thank you Target!

Nina Packebush, used with permission
Source: Nina Packebush, used with permission

Ariel Gore: I know some aspects of the novel are linked to your own life and family. In your experience, how does society make life more difficult for teen parents?

Nina Packebush: In addition to media campaigns there is also a lot of misinformation out there that society never seems to question. For example, one of the things you always hear about teen childbearing is the cost to society. I don’t think that most people realize that projected lost tax revenue is a large part of this equation. Lost tax revenue is not a good reason to shame and marginalize a segment of society. I should also point out that there have actually been a couple of studies that have shown that by the age of thirty teen parents are often out-earning peers of similar socio-economic backgrounds. Becoming a parent at an early age tends to be a pretty good motivator for people, so the whole lost tax revenue thing is just ridiculous all the way around.

We as a society also seem to lack critical thinking skills when it comes to talking about “the negative effects of teen childbearing.” For example, we like to talk a lot about how teen parents have low high school graduation rates as if giving birth suddenly causes teenager to vanish into some void of chosen illiteracy, but what we don’t talk about is how schools could be more friendly to and inclusive of teen parents so that they can graduate.

Ariel Gore: I feel like that’s where Girls Like Me comes in. I know the book is brand new, but what has been the response so far? Your book doesn’t gloss anything over, but it really does feel like an antidote to shame. And of course the book is not just for queer teen parents—not even just for teen parents—but for everyone who is interested in moving beyond the patriarchal nuclear family as the only story in town.

Nina Packebush: So far the response has been really positive. I've had current and grown-up teen parents contact me thanking me for writing it and asking when they can expect the sequel. I've had many, many people who have been through the mental health system contact me saying I nailed their experience and it felt good to be validated.

I've had queer youth write to me telling me that this book means everything to them.

I even had one queer youth show up at a reading and tell me they're making a Spotify playlist soundtrack for my book. I can't wait for them to send it to me! I even had a woman in her sixties write to me saying she connected deeply with this book and thanked me for writing it.

I know my book covers a lot of controversial topics, so I was pretty nervous about how it would be received, but so far the people I wrote it for seem to love it and that feels really good. Sherman Alexi says children's books should be written in blood, meaning that kids need to see their true lives reflected back at them and that is what I tried to do with this book. I wanted to reach those of us who never see ourselves in books.

I also just found out that the In the Margins award has added Girls Like Me to their list of Recommended Books for 2018. In the Margins strives to find the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody—or a cycle of all three, so I'm pretty excited about that.

Nina Packebush and son Jason, used with permission
Source: Nina Packebush and son Jason, used with permission

Ariel Gore: So much happiness comes to your characters in this book through their extended families and their chosen families. So often we think we’ve got to be a nuclear family in isolation or a single-parent family in isolation, so I appreciate this more organic, supportive family structure that comes together in Girls Like Me.

Nina Packebush: Thanks for seeing the joy in this book. I know there is a lot of pain in it, but I also thought it had so many moments of real connection and acceptance. I wanted to show that a family does not have to be perfect to be supportive, loving, and whole. We all have flaws and all families have flaws, but they can still be filled with love and opportunities for growth and change. Sometimes those families that look so perfect on the outside are toxic, and the ones that are maybe a little rough around the edges, but filled with honesty and rawness are the ones that carry us through... whether those are the families we are born or adopted into, chosen families, or both.